SEPTEMBER 18, 2011

Talk about chutzpah: Peter tried to determine the future of Jesus. “That can’t happen to you!” That strikes me as rather arrogant. Or maybe it was naive, or desperate. How dare Peter assume that he knew more than the Son of God? After all, Jesus had been performing miracle after miracle. You’d think Jesus would be able to take care of himself. Maybe Peter could sense that something was wrong. Maybe he knew Jesus was right, but he just couldn’t bear to admit it.

Jesus’ response is famous, often translated as “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Jesus is upset with Peter because it seems like Peter still doesn’t get it. Our lives aren’t about this earth, although it’s very tempting to think that. They aren’t about our everyday concerns. They aren’t about respectability or success or wealth or a nice house or even understanding. That’s the “gaining the world” part of his lecture. It really doesn’t matter what we acquire here on earth because those material things are all meaningless. Our lives revolve around God. And God is beyond our understanding. The only path to God is through trust and faith, not by dwelling on earthly concerns, and not by trying to second-guess God.

God is always there, whether you’re searching for Him or not. God is not there to give you money; God’s there to provide sustenance. God is not there to give you a car; God’s there to help you get where you need to go. God is not there to give you a house; God’s there to shelter you. See the difference? Jesus knew his disciples were still looking only at what was happening on earth and not in heaven. They were worried Jesus would die, because to them death was the end of life. But Jesus looked at death as the beginning of a new life.

I had been looking at our lawn for weeks, watching it grow high and go to seed like a hayfield. And I had been worrying what the neighbors would think. With all the rain that had been falling, I just didn’t make the time to cut the grass during the short periods of sunshine. I was busy with other priorities. But I finally set my mind to it. I was also tending our neighbor’s yard. Her husband passed away and she couldn’t mow the grass herself. Her friend who looked after her asked if I could mow it periodically and I was only too happy to oblige. So I figured on that day I’d start off with her lawn.

While she was off at work, I went over to her backyard where the big new riding mower was sitting idle. I brought over some gas from my house and filled the tank. I sat down on the springy seat, pulled the clutch and turned the key. The engine roared to life. I adjusted the choke and then engaged the blades. With a massive THUNK, the engine died. A wisp of smoke drifted up from the engine, along with an acrid smell. I raised the blades and apprehensively turned the key again. Nothing. Not a sound. I had killed the lawnmower, and didn’t know how or why. The acrid smell grew stronger. Did I blow out the battery? I lifted the hood. Everything looked fine. I hunted for a fuse but couldn’t find one.

The lawnmower was sitting on a thick patch of grass next to her driveway. To get a better look at the problem, I put the mower in neutral and then pulled it backward to the asphalt. As the big machine inched back, a dark object began to appear underneath. I finally got the mower onto the asphalt, and there lying at the spot where the mower blades had been was a now-expired skunk. That explained the acrid smell. The animal had probably been snoozing there when I gave it a rude awakening.

My thoughts at that point were immediately earth-bound. I killed a skunk in my neighbor’s yard; she’s going to be really upset. I’ve ruined her new lawnmower; I’m going to have to pay to get it fixed. Her lawn is still a mess; I failed at my mission. But I was missing the big picture. “Whoever gives up their life for mine will find it.” I was treating the whole situation as if it was about me, as if the only thing that mattered was a lawnmower and my reputation. The situation involved me, but it wasn’t about me.

How many times do you get frustrated with your job or your relationships or your chores or your car? Do you get upset when you’re stuck in traffic? It’s all about you, isn’t it? Life isn’t working according to your plan.

That’s what Jesus is saying to Peter: life has nothing to do with your plan. It’s all about God’s plan. That’s what we should be focused on. That’s what we should remember when we take up our crosses. Don’t take up a cross -- bear a heavy burden -- because it gets you noticed or because you expect some sort of reward. Instead do it because you know it’s what God wants. And when you give up thoughts of yourself, God will work wonders through you.

I remember when I was stuck in traffic once on my way to work, growing more and more impatient with every passing minute, frustration rising as I kept thinking that I was going to be late for work. When the traffic finally began flowing again, I picked up speed and headed down the road -- only to encounter a large accident at an intersection. If it hadn’t been for the traffic jam, it might have been me who was at the center of that accident.

So what does that have to do with a lawnmower and a skunk? I was helpless. I didn’t know what to do and thought that I had completely screwed things up. So I gave the situation to God, not as a cop-out, not out of fear, but as a plea for guidance. I called the friend of my neighbor who had bought the lawnmower and explained what happened. I was expecting her to be quite upset and ask me to pay for repairs. But instead she burst out into a long laugh. It turned out that rogue critters had become an increasing problem in my neighbor’s yard. The friend had told her to call an exterminator, but my neighbor didn’t bother. The death of the lawnmower (and the skunk) was going to be the catalyst that would force my neighbor to deal with that problem. The friend said not to worry about the lawnmower; she knew someone who would fix it. And she thanked me for looking after the yard.

It wasn’t about me. I worried about the lawnmower. I worried about the grass. I worried about the skunk. But all along I was just a small but vital stitch in the huge tapestry that God weaves from day to day. God doesn’t just look after me. God looks after the whole world and somehow makes us all intertwine. We all have a place in the Big Picture, but the movie is always about God.
So what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, but lose their life, their essence, their purpose? Remember Jesus’ question: “What would you give in exchange for your own existence?” I guess the answer depends on what you think your existence is about. When you bind yourself to the things of this world, those things can become the reason for living or for dying. But Jesus wasn’t focused on this world. He knew that the world itself was not about things. It was about spirit. That’s what Peter couldn’t see. The world we know is just part of a plan that God has, a plan so vast that we can’t see its beginning nor its end. Jesus was giving himself over willingly to death, because he knew -- through his faith -- that it was all part of God’s great plan. Jesus knew it wasn’t about himself; it was about God.

There’s a brilliant film, Koyaanisqatsi, that vividly illustrates what happens to people who live only for this world. They look bent, oppressed, hollow, devoid of spirit, seeking fulfillment in bars or clothes or television. The film’s title is drawn from the language of the Hopi Indians and means, “life out of balance.” Native Americans knew you had to have a spiritual connection, or your life would be hollow and unfulfilled. “Whoever gives up their life for mine will find it.” Whoever lets go of this world and its material cares will enter the realm of God.

Walter Wangerin, Jr., wrote a book of modern day parables called Ragman and Other Cries of Faith. In a series of vignettes, he explored the practice of focusing on God through stories of this world. How are we to keep focused on God, when this mortal life continually pulls us in so many other directions? I’d like to leave you with the opening of that book, An Invocation:

"Unto you, Lord. Unto you, Lord God of the Worlds, I turn. And even when I do not know that I am turning, I turn to you.

"Your print is everywhere, and everywhere divine.  Where can I look and I do not see you?  Into myself? But I encompass you, who compass me from every corner, for I am sin and you forgiveness and I cannot live except it be by you. My life itself is yours. No, when I look at me I see the thing that you have done.

"Then where can I look and I do not see you?  The city? Hot with human enmity, cold with old mortality, the city? Busy and fatigued; kissing below back alley stairs, lips as limp as rotten violets; and children cursing like their parents, parents careless; parties for wasted wealth on Saturday night, exhausted Sunday morning; cars and lights and sirens; ointments, rouges, polishes, colognes, and coin -- the city? Turning to the city, do I turn from you?

"No, my Lord, for you are in the city. In all the affairs of humankind, you are there. You were not ashamed to be born of a woman, flesh like hers and mine, troubled as she and I by all the bruises of that flesh. You emptied yourself to enter the city, and though your coming may not make it good, it makes you cry, and there you are. In the oily streets, damp with rain and human sin, lit by a single light, I see your face reflected. O God, your incarnation’s in the streets. I see the city, and I cannot help but see you.  And I love you.

"They ask me, “Whom do you love?” And I tell them I love you.  They ask, “But whom do you love?” I point to the city.  They insist, “But whom do you love?”  And since they cannot see you for themselves, I do the next best thing: I tell them stories. I tell them a thousand stories, Lord. For the city is active, and you are acting in it, always; and activity’s a story. I tell them about you by telling them the story.

"Some of the stories I fashion myself, pleading your patience with my poor imagination and praying it be righteous to shape your truth into fiction. But others happened to me truly, through your grace; and I hope the people realize that what is mine is theirs by virtue of your universal presence. Convince them of your love, O Lord. Because I love you, and I love them too. But yours is the mightier love, and I wish they knew it. Oh! I wish they could laugh out loud for the knowledge of your love for them.

"So I turn to you, here at the beginning:  Give them eyes, bright God, to see you everywhere. They are the city; to see you in themselves! Give them ears, thou roll of thunder, and feeling for your presence -- in these words because I love you, and in the streets because you choose to love them.
And since I am assured that faithful praying finds a faithful answer:

Gratias tibi Domine

MARCH 31, 2012

Spring cleaning time is upon us.  I still haven't finished building a new laundry room for Karen, but I've been occupying myself with some artistic cleaning.  After the successful debut by the Greater Westfield Choral Association of the piece I wrote for their 35th anniversary, I've begun tackling many other works.  One is a piece for the 50th anniversary of our church.  There are also piles of old sheet music I'm gradually sifting through that I still haven't properly transcribed (such as most of Piano Works).  I've just completed a revision of the choral version of May All Your Days Be Holidays.  The initial choral transcription was rather pathetic, with the entire melody line given to a baritone soloist.  It was more like how Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra would sing Christmas carols: they'd carry the bulk of the song, and a background chorus would fill in Ooohs and Aahhhs.  So now the piece is truly for a choir.

I've also been working on a piece for the Westfield State University Wind Symphony, one of the finest ensembles in the Pioneer Valley under the direction of Dr. Karen LaVoie.  It's been a slow process, so far taking the better part of a decade.  I keep scrapping ideas and changing them.

There's also the matter of Moonlight Serenade.  This year marks the tenth anniversary that Karen and I began working on that recording.  The entire album is completed in a rough demo state, but it's never gone beyond that.  Maybe this summer we'll see it finished.  Then again, maybe not.

Gideon Freudmann has asked me to make another music video for him, this time of his new song Puddletown.  I wish days didn't stop at 24 hours, and that I still had the boundless energy of my youth.  At least I'll never lack for things to do.  But if I ever do, there's always pinball.

JUNE 9, 2012

Sciatica is a pain in the butt. I fell last December and didn't notice a problem, not even a bruise. A few weeks later I began having sharp pains in my leg. My doctor told me it was sciatica; take ibuprofen and it will eventually heal. It didn't. I then went through nearly a month of physical therapy that made the problem worse. I stopped that and began seeing a chiropractor, probably too late in the game. But most of my existence now is lying down in bed.  I get up to walk about, but not the four mile walks Karen and I used to make. My big concern is for our summer amusement park trips, which we've already planned. I've been given a wide variety of drugs that don't seem to do a lot except cause side effects. I've been thinking about my mother who, near the end of her life, suffered from shingles far more painful than what I'm going through. She was incapacitated for nearly a year. I can't imagine myself having to be that sedentary. Who'll finish building the laundry room?

Something I've discovered during all this, though, is how much work I can get done on my iPad (including writing this blog). I've already written my class syllabi for next semester. The big missing piece right now is music composition. But when Noteflight shifts it's site over to HTML5, the iPad will be able to do pretty much everything I would do on a desktop. That time can't come soon enough.  Games distract me only for so long. I need to feel I'm actually accomplishing something, especially when I'm flat on my back.

JUNE 10, 2012

This was the day Karen and I had anticipated for months: we were finally going to spend a week at DisneyWorld and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I got an all-inclusive  package deal from AAA. We got our luggage packed early. But there was the one looming problem of sciatica. My chiropractor gave me some advice for surviving the 3-hour flight down to Florida. 

I didn't sleep well the night before; I was so worried that I wouldn't be able to make it. And I was even more worried about disappointing Karen, who had been looking forward to it. I was determined to force mind-over-matter and tough it out through any pain I felt. I had my usual bowl of cereal for breakfast and took my pills: Tylenol and doctor-prescribed Tramadol to kill the pain. We set off for the airport. I reclined in Karen's car to keep pressure off my spine. 

When we arrived at the airport, there was about an hour before our departure. I was getting a little light-headed, and the pain hadn't diminished. Karen's brother, who works at the airport, met us at the terminal and made sure we had decent seats. We boarded the JetBlue plane at 7:30. I sat down in the cushy seat and got a bad feeling, a throbbing pain through my lower back and all the way down my left leg. I tried shifting in my seat but there wasn't much room. The seat didn't recline enough to make a difference. The stewardess at the front was chatting amiably with a family in front of us.  The family was also making their first trip to Disney. 

The pilots boarded. My pain increased.  I didn't know how I was going to survive three hours in that position, plus another half hour sitting on a bus to our hotel. I tried the stretches my chiropractor had suggested, but they couldn't dull the pain enough. I became sweaty and I could feel the blood draining from my face.  The stewardesses were about to close the plane door and in a moment we would begin taxiing down the runway. I tried to lift my arm to get the attention of a stewardess, but my arms were going numb. Karen looked over at me. She was starting to panic. "Jay, are you all right?"  The stewardess came over and I mumbled, "Can I just lie down for a little bit?"  My body began to slump to the side. 

Karen said the crew rushed over and one of them said, "He's gone."  I had passed out. They swiftly brought an oxygen tank and Karen frantically strapped the mask to my face. She said my skin had turned green. The next thing I knew, I was breathing heavily into the mask. The stewardesses were asking Karen my name, age and other vitals. They asked me if I had breakfast and if I took any medications. I tried to slur my words out from behind the mask. Paramedics arrived. Karen explained I have sciatica and can't sit down. (The crew must have thought, "Then what the heck is he doing here?")  I felt so embarrassed for Karen and upset that I was holding up the flight.  I turned to Karen, choking up, and told her I didn't think I was going to be able to make it. The crew responded that they were taking me off the plane.  That was the only choice they had, really.  The crew on the flight and the airport staff were incredibly gracious and extremely efficient, handling the awkward situation very well. One of the stewardesses brought me a bag of ice for my back, which helped. 

When my color had returned and the sweating ebbed, they removed the oxygen mask and asked if I could stand. I grabbed onto the luggage rack above me and pulled myself out of the seat. The pain diminished immediately when I stood. Karen was fighting back tears as we slowly exited the plane. Our luggage, on the other hand, would make the trip to Orlando for us.  

They had a wheelchair waiting for me, but I told them I would be more comfortable walking. Karen held my hand as I limped back to the terminal. The paramedics stayed right with me and took my vital signs. They offered to bring me to a nearby hospital, but I declined.  One of the paramedics said he had similar problems with sciatica and his chiropractor has done wonders. One of the Bradley security walked us back to the terminal exit. We saw our flight leave, and with it our vacation. 

I had prayed for some sort of solution to this dilemma, of how I could make it through our vacation in my condition. As so often happens, the prayer was answered but not in the way I expected: before we took any vacation, I was going to have to fix my back.

JUNE 12, 2012

One good thing about lying on my back all day -- well, the ONLY good thing about lying on my back all day -- is that I can do a lot of reading. I've been reading a lot about drugs. I originally was taking Motrin for my sciatica. Then I switched to Advil, not realizing they're basically the same thing. My doctor then put me on Prednisone, which gave me insomnia, then Naproxen, which tore up my stomach. So I switched to Tylenol. My stomach is now fine and I sleep at night, but I've been reading about the differences between the medications. The doctor has been trying to reduce inflammation that might be causing the pain, thus the NSAIDs that were being prescribed. Tylenol does dull the pain, but it does nothing for the inflammation.   That means I've been treading water for the past week; there's been no noticeable improvement.  So now that my stomach's better, I'm taking a low dose of Advil again and so far it seems to be helping more than the Tylenol.  If my stomach can stand the abuse, I might make a little progress.

This morning I was supposed to be going for an MRI of my back to help figure out what's going on.  I got a call from the insurance company bright and early saying they had cancelled it because it hadn't been properly authorized. They said they were very sorry and would straighten out the confusion.  I'm still waiting to hear back from them. Hopefully I'll get the MRI by Christmas. I can picture Karen, like in the movie Brazil, going to the insurance company screaming, "What have you done with his body!"

JUNE 18, 2012

The Advil didn't last very long; that evening my stomach began acting up again. So I decided to try the Tramadol again. That's been handling the pain pretty well. But now I'm constipated. It seems like every drug has a problem that requires more drugs to counteract the complications. 

Today I went for my MRI. It was an interesting experience, sort of like being placed in a white coffin and then given a soundtrack of jackhammers as background music. It was a long concert, about a half-hour. I'm hoping the results will bring some relief. 

Yesterday was Choir Sunday at church, the big musical finale to our church year. Karen chose five songs that had been well-received over the past year. We performed them all, punctuated by her and Pastor Kim reading quotes from the congregation about what music means to them. I couldn't stand through the entire service, so between songs I went into a nearby room to lie on a table. The service went well and, outside of an upcoming hymn-sing, that ended Karen's formal duties at the church until September. 

I meet with my chiropractor again tomorrow and my GP at the end of the week. By then maybe we'll be on the road to recovery.

JUNE 19, 2012

The results of the MRI came in today: a "moderately large extruded disc herniation."  Basically, a piece of my spine broke off and is squishing my sciatic nerve. My chiropractor discussed a few options. Cortisone might provide short-term relief, but the problem could return. The best option, in his opinion, is to surgically remove the broken piece. He said the only problem with that is there's a one to two month waiting list to get that surgery done by a specialist. So I might be on my back for the rest of the summer. That's not a happy prospect. But at least there's an end in sight, a point where I can finally sit and stand again.

JUNE 22, 2012

My chiropractor, Michael O'Connor, had recommended I see Dr. Kamil Kalia at Mercy Hospital in Springfield. I made an appointment and when I went to his office, I had to lie down on a table; I was unable to stand for any length of time. He asked me how long I had been like that. When I told him, he said he was scheduling me for an operation in two days.

The surgery went well. I passed out during the pre-op (from a combination of the pain, not having eaten or drank in nearly 12 hours and the I.V.). Karen was with me and said the anesthesiologist was chatting with me. He asked how tall I was. I don't remember this, but when I told him he said I'd get even taller after I fell asleep. I earnestly replied that I would to grow to 7'3" and then shrink quickly to 4'4". I then asked him if you first have to work at a comedy club before becoming an anesthesiologist. I remember seeing the ceiling lights in the operating room and commenting that they looked like what I had seen on TV shows.

Then I woke up in the recovery room about an hour later. My leg no longer hurt. After a few simple tests to make sure I was with it and that I could move my legs, they moved me to the second recovery room and Karen arrived with a card and a little stained glass wind chime. I was given ginger ale and graham crackers, which tasted heavenly.  Rev. Kim, arrived and we chatted for a while. After about a half-hour I was moved to a reclining chair. It was the first time I had sat comfortably in months.  I decided to try putting the footrest up but couldn't budge the handle. Kim tried to help by yanking the handle.  The footrest flew up taking my legs with it. That wasn't very pleasant so she put the footrest back down. A few minutes later the nurse brought a wheelchair over and I was free to go. A big thank you to Dr. Kalia for his great skill, to Dr. O'Connor and Rose for setting this all up and to God for hearing all of your prayers and giving me the courage to go through with this.

JUNE 29, 2012

Today we re-visited the surgeon's office so that I could have the four staples removed from my back. The nurse was impressed with my progress and said that everything was looking pretty good. I need to take it somewhat easy for about a month, but then I'm free to go back to my usual routines -- including riding roller coasters. Even so, I'll probably take it slow for the rest of this season. My chiropractor has given me some exercises to help me limber up. I'll gradually build up to riding my Trikke again, and then work up to a round of disc golf.

I still have a sort of phantom pain once in a while, which is normal. That should gradually lessen over time.   The hospital gave me a prescription for Percocet, which I haven't bothered with. I've stuck with an occasional Tylenol and really haven't had to deal with much pain. Of course, given the condition I'd been in over the past few months, most anything would feel less painful.

I'm settling back into some semblance of normalcy: sitting down, driving, walking. I guess pretty soon it'll be time to resume all those summer projects that I put on hold....

JULY 16, 2012

Painting is exhausting.  I demolished the old wall in the basement while Karen went to visit her daughters in Ohio.  Demolishing is fun.  There's something oddly satisfying about smashing up wood.  But once that was done and I had cleaned up, the work began.  Before I put up the new wall (the old wall was nothing but thin paneling tacked onto 2x2 strips of wood), I wanted to paint the foundation and ceiling in the laundry room area.  I had a can of Kilz, which I thought would be up to the task.  There were copious old water stains all over the ceiling from before we had bought the house.  And the foundation was badly stained as well.  So with roller and brush in hand, I began to turn the nicotine-stained area white.  After one coat, all the stains bled through.  After two coats, all the stains bled through.  After the third coat, I gave up.  The ceiling and walls are moderately white.  They look a heck of a lot better than they did before.  Now I have to re-paint the floor.  And after that, I'll be ready to frame the new wall.  I'd been planning to do this for nearly five years, so I'm glad I'm finally making progress.